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how sustainable is cotton?

A large part of our clothing is made of cotton. On the one hand, it enjoys a good reputation as a natural product that can be processed well. On the other hand, the plant does not grow regionally and its cultivation is resource-intensive. How sustainable is cotton really?

Cotton plant

Cotton or polyester?

Textiles made of cotton have many advantages: they are comfortable to wear, breathable and soft. Basically, the natural fibre is also considered more environmentally friendly: because cotton is a natural product that is biodegradable. Synthetic fibres such as polyester or polyamide, on the other hand, are obtained from petroleum and are per se (like all plastics) difficult to dispose of. In addition, they release microplastics when washed, which end up in the groundwater.

Nevertheless, (conventional) is not fundamentally environmentally friendly. Due to high demand, the plant is now grown in over 80 countries - many of which do not necessarily have the climatic conditions that cotton actually needs.

Cotton has a high water requirement

The plant originates from the tropics and requires a lot of water: around 8,700 litres of water are used to grow one kilogram of cotton.

This is particularly problematic because cultivation often takes place in dry areas and only works thanks to artificial irrigation.

The freshwater consumed is then often lacking elsewhere: the groundwater level sinks and drinking water may become scarce. The Aral Sea is considered the most impressive example in this context: its tributaries were used to irrigate cotton plantations, and the once fourth-largest inland lake in the world - with an area as large as Bavaria - has now dried up to 90 percent. What remains is a salt desert that no longer provides a livelihood for the people there.

Reading tip: Virtual waterblog post

Harvested cotton in bags
Harvested cotton

High use of pesticides and insecticides

The cotton plant is grown in monocultures, which makes it vulnerable to pests. Around a quarter of the insecticides used each year end up on cotton plantations. There, they not only reduce animal populations, but also become dangerous for humans: many farmers wear no or inadequate protective clothing, so they come into direct contact when applying the pesticides. Some of the poison also seeps into the groundwater, polluting larger areas and the drinking water supply.
According to WHO estimates, about 20,000 cotton pickers die every year due to pesticides, and many more suffer health problems.

"On average, the amount of cotton that goes into a T-shirt devours around 150 grams of poison."

Kirsten Brodde, textile expert, book author, blogger

Child labour

Cotton bolls
Cotton bolls before harvest

Child labour is a major problem worldwide. The ILO estimates that around 160 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 work, about 60% of them in agriculture - such as cotton growing. They are forced to do this because their parents' income is too low to support the family alone.

The consequences: Due to the strenuous work and the high use of pesticides, many children and young people suffer from health problems at an early age. In addition, they may not attend school for weeks or even at all, so that it is difficult to take up a higher-qualified - and thus better-paid - job even in adulthood.

CO2 emissions and climate crisis

The use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers causes a lot of CO2: A single T-shirt causes around 7-9 kg of carbon dioxide in this way - just for growing the cotton used. Further greenhouse gas emissions occur in the further processing and transport to Europe.

Is organic cotton the solution?

In fact, certified organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative: The use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides is not permitted in organic cultivation, which protects the soil, climate and the health of the farmers. Child labour is also prohibited.
In addition, according to a study by Textile Exchange (2014), 95 percent of the water required by the plants in organic cultivation is covered by green water, i.e. rainwater that is in the soil or collected.

Learn more:

One seal that guarantees the use of organic cotton is the GOTS seal.

Here you can find more information: "How good is GOTS?

This is also possible because organic cotton is mainly grown in countries where there is not too much drought.

Converting from conventional to organic farming is not easy for many farmers - be it due to climatic conditions, the associated costs or the lack of knowledge.

And now?

Those who want to consume sustainable textiles should also consider other materials: Linen or hemp are also natural and biodegradable raw materials that are suitable for many textiles.

When it comes to a cotton product, organic cotton is clearly the better choice: climate, environment and local people benefit from the standards.

Regardless of the material used, however, the question should be asked before every purchase: Do I need this product? Will it give me pleasure for a long time? After all, our current (over)consumption is straining the planetary boundaries of our earth, which only has finite raw materials.

CONCLUSION

In principle, cotton textiles are much more sustainable than polyester clothing: they do not lose microplastic fibres and are biodegradable.
However, only the conscious consumption of organic cotton is really good for people and the environment: The cultivation does not use mineral fertilisers and pesticides, the water used is not lacking in the already dry cultivation areas and no children are employed on the plantations.